In April 2018, I was lucky enough to find myself in Palermo, Sicily. One of the things I was determined to do on that holiday – as well as eat my own bodyweight in red prawn crudo, pasta con le sarde and ricotta-filled cannoli – was to sip, for the first time, the wines of an illustrious natural wine producer called Frank Cornelissen. After my frantic attempts to track a bottle down, in my last hours there I entrusted the Raisin app to come to my rescue, and at last encountered the volcanic nectar at a bar.

Munjebel Etna Rosso 2016 glowed a hazy ruby-crimson, and tasted like a smoky grown-up strawberry sherbet. I was mystified. I was moved. So much so that from that moment on I only wanted 100% natural wine. Sulphur became enemy number one, and I bought into the entire counter-cultural philosophy of natural wine: just fermented grape juice; nothing added, nothing removed. So elegant.

Fast-forward five years to Raw Wine London in May 2022. I attended a seminar with Cornelissen, tasting the entire repertoire of his red wines from the 2018 vintage. As I learned in a recent issue of Noble Rot, this was the first year he would add a small dose of sulphur to every cuvee. ‘Sacrilege!’ I thought. ‘How could this be!?’

The answer lay in the taste of many of the other wines at the fair. While there was an abundance of delicious drops, for some, funky and wild would be too generous a description. In all honesty, many were actually faulty, either suffering from an imbalance of volatile acidity which rendered them closer to bad kombucha than wine, or worse still, succumbing to the fatal flaw of mouse taint, making for a genuinely unpleasant experience in the mouth. Cornelissen’s wines, conversely, now had focus, structure, and balance. That magical effervescence was no more, but nor was the potential for the wine to turn into vinegar or soggy cardboard liquid.

That contrast represents the tide of change currently sweeping London’s natural wine scene. There was a time, not so long ago, that the ‘natty wine’ evangelists – let’s use that term to account for bars, restaurants, and confused genres alike – was becoming formulaic. Not to their guests, myself included, who lapped up the casual atmosphere and carried their emblems on tote bags, but to the insiders, the sommeliers, the industry people, for whom wine lists entirely dominated by young juice bombs where the lure was in de rigeur pop labels, had become too predictable. It feels as if this current is finally switching direction.

The natural-wine movement has had wildly (no pun intended) transformative effects on the way Londoners perceive, think about and drink wine, but the more radical, dogmatic tenets have softened, meaning the establishment is starting to look a bit more like the wine bars that came before them: lists arranged geographically, a variety of vintages, the listing of some classics, and most importantly, a clearer focus on the notion of terroir.

But though these shifts at a widespread level are relatively recent, the story has deeper roots. I have not been an oenophilic resident of the city long enough to tell you why, so I enlisted Raphael Rodriguez, former restaurant and wine director of Fera at Claridge’s, and current co-director and co-owner of Vinetrail, one of the key importers bringing the best natural wines to the UK, to unpack the details.

“I would say the birth of the natural wine movement in this city was Terroirs in Dulwich in 2009. That was the real first platform championing it from A-Z. Before Terroirs, I used to work at Sketch. While we did have some natural wines there, it wasn’t in the messaging. Terroirs happened and in central, you also had Isabelle Legeron working with Claude Bosi.

Noble Fine Liquor was pushing proper natural wine – zero sulphur, no compromising

“And then, obviously, you had East London. They were pushing it. Noble Fine Liquor and P Franco were pretty important. They were pushing proper natural wine, zero sulphur, no compromising.”

An explosion followed from there. East London birthed many bars and restaurants unironically devoted to the natty banger. South and North London followed, and more recently, West London has adopted a few too. In the last decade, the natural-wine establishment has become a feature of almost every neighbourhood. Clearly, punters couldn’t get enough of the stuff. The question is why?

Rodriguez tells me, “Natural wine was for the people. Wine is for everyone. It’s not just for the super rich with red trousers. And that’s what I loved. I loved that vibe of natural wine pushing it. You don’t have to have the knowledge, you don’t have to be arrogant about it, you don’t have to be pompous. It’s a matter of sharing, and whatever you feel is right. The point is to enjoy yourself. And if you have the knowledge, cool. And if you want to know, fine. But it doesn’t matter, the point of wine is for it to be shared between people.”

Hannah Crosbie, an influential wine voice on Instagram, describes herself as “part of that zeitgeist of alternative wine communication, which was part and parcel of the natural-wine movement. For her, “people got into natural wine for the right reasons. It’s ecologically sound. Millennials and Gen-Z care so much about the environment. There’s also this millennial desire to care about what you’re putting into your body. You don’t mind having spots in your apple, you don’t mind having a funky wine. I think the natural-wine space was an amazing vehicle to get young people into wine, because it was so frowned upon, or not seen as a proper wine movement by the older generation, so they felt it was their space to experiment and learn, and I think that gave a lot of people confidence.”

But Rodriguez thinks the answer lies in more than just accessibility, particularly for the generation of sommeliers who began pushing these wines in London. “You entered a world of flavours that are completely different. You enter that world with big eyes and you’re surprised.”

“I’m part of the ‘Terroirs generation.’ That’s when I was a somm. All of us didn’t recognize the faults because we were so excited about different flavours. We were carrying the flag, we were going for it, we were extremists. But then, like everything in life, you educate yourself, you educate your palate, and you start to understand. You learn to recognise the faults. You end up getting bored because they’re all tasting the same. The technique is taking over so we’re not thinking about terroir anymore.” He continues, “Of course, at the beginning you don’t recognise mouse taint. You don’t recognise bret, volatile acidity, ethyl acetate. You don’t recognise all of those faults. One of those faults on their own is no biggie – they can bring character to the wine. The problem is when they take over, it’s no longer drinkable. But now people realise, if you drop a pinch of sulphur, all of a sudden, you elevate the experience. You have real complexity and real terroir definition.”

Discussing outstanding challenges in communicating this message, Rodriguez identifies the power of marketing. “That’s what can be frustrating for us as well. It’s all about the label, not what’s in the bottle.”

Crosbie thinks the power of natural wine’s remarketing is causing the divide to persist. “Natural wine has created a dichotomy. There are people who see a wine and the glass is clear, and it’s got a funky label of a jellyfish on it. That’s natural wine and it’s good for the environment. And then they see a bottle of wine with a white label with the name of a château on it, it’s maybe got a few more years on it, it looks like something my mum or dad would have, they’re like ‘Eugh, that’s a bad wine, that’s a classic wine, that’s bad for the environment, boo, hiss,’ when actually, it’s just not the case at all.”

The example she points to is Domaine de la Romanée Conti, probably the most esteemed winemaker in the world. Its vineyards have been run biodynamically since the 1990s, but would never market itself as ‘natural’. This is true of many of the cult names in Burgundy, as well as in Champagne, Loire, Tuscany and in New World regions too.

Faults can bring character. But when they take over, it's no longer drinkable

Crosbie continues, “A lot of young people found the wine world stuffy and impenetrable, and this is their safe space, but I think the natural-wine movement has created a bit of a blind leading the blind situation. No, it’s not funky, it’s faulty!

“I want to say point blank there are people that have been working organically, biodynamically, naturally for years and years and they make incredibly stable, ageworthy, delicious, vibrant, alive wines. And that’s one of the great things about natural wines – they just taste alive. But I think Noble Rot is a really good example of how I feel about wine as it stands. They care about organics and biodynamics, and their wines are often incidentally natural.”

The restaurant and wine bar outpost of the eponymous magazine, Noble Rot is a rather unique institution, straddling both sides of a divided wine world seamlessly. Where else in London can you find such an eclectic blend of classic and unconventional, young and old, accessible and premium? It has managed the impossible task of looking hip and cool, and yet also being somewhere to bring your Claret dad for lunch. I spoke to Mark Andrew, a Master of Wine who directs the company with Dan Keeling. He told me that the trick was to never see the divide in the first place. “Whether we have had a role to play in shifting attitudes would be for other people to comment on, as our position has never changed. We celebrate wines made by people rather than corporations, that represent the place they are grown by being farmed conscientiously and made using sympathetic artisanal methods rather than industrial processes. Wines like this represent the vast majority of references on our wine list, from our house wines to the most expensive bottles, but we don’t think of them as being from distinct worlds like ‘fine’ or ‘natural.’

“Hugh Johnson once defined fine wine as ‘wine worth talking about,’ and as long as it is well made, tastes delicious and true to its origins then it can find a place on a Noble Rot wine list, regardless of the labels others might attach to it.”

I suggest to Andrew that the reason we are seeing more classic and cult wines – the wines of German riesling producer JJ Prum being my favourite example – in previously self-styled 100% natural wine bars, is in part a result of the maturing taste buds of natural wine drinkers. He disagrees.

“I’m not sure that I would agree it’s a case of ‘maturing taste buds’. I think with many things in life that start out as contentious issues, with time the conversation becomes more nuanced and perhaps a more balanced set of views begin to prevail. It’s understandable that in the early years of the natural wine debate, the dogmatic positions on either side would command the most attention and be shouted the loudest, but as time has gone on people have become more comfortable with the grey areas in between.”

One of the key restaurants pushing this kind of message is Planque. Opening in the summer of 2021, it describes itself as ‘a winemaker’s clubhouse’, serving up original and creative food by chef Sebastien Myers, alongside offering something new as a wine establishment. When I suggest this, Jonathan Alphandery, the founder and director, is too modest to agree. “I don’t think anything was missing to be honest,” he says. “London’s wine scene is amazing and super diverse. There is also lots of access to wine. I think I just picked what I loved from all the venues I enjoyed visiting and mixed it all into one.”

He continues, “Planque is truly a reflection of how I drink. The clash between fine wine and natural wine is the sweet spot for me. Most of the wines I tend to gravitate towards are made in a traditional rather than modern way – sometimes with sulphur, sometimes not – but mostly it has to be delicious and not faulty. Faults do not appeal to me, and the important wines of all regions, whether they are natural or less so, interest me as part of my wine journey.”

For Rodriguez, there is one place in East London that has always thought along such lines. He tells me, “Sager + Wilde’s wine bar was one of the first places to have that balance. Classics, opening by the glass at good prices, and natural as well. Arguably you could say that that was the first balanced wine list in East London. And I can tell you for a fact that those of us in the industry were there every weekend.”

For Michael Sager, who opened the Sager + Wilde Wine Bar on Hackney Road with Charlotte Wilde in 2013, communicating a more nuanced, balanced message has always been a focus and challenge in equal measure. “We opened three years after natural wine became a topic, and because we were one of the first, some people understood us as purely natural, but we weren’t. A balanced list means inclusivity, depth and diversity. I’m not interested in the natural debate, and I subscribe to the Isabelle Legeron definition, that less than 70mg/l of sulphur, and organic plus farming constitutes natural. But beyond that, I’m non-dogmatic and I’m pragmatic. If you’re a wine bar you need to not bracket people out at a price point, but also to cater to those who want to drink old Rioja and old Burgundy.”

You could say Sager + Wilde was the first balanced wine list in East London

One of the notable things at both Planque and Sager + Wilde is the listing of many older vintages. It does this better and deeper than many other places, but it is becoming more commonplace in general, with regular events devoted to celebrating the back vintages of a wide range of bottles – including zero-sulphur wines. Given Noble Rot’s deep commitment to a strong stock of wines with age, I asked Andrew whether he felt this indicated that natural wine producers are getting better and creating more age-worthy wines or rather the changing values of London wine drinkers. “Neither,” he replies. “I think the answer is a bit more prosaic, to be honest. Natural wine as a divisible category is not really a long-established phenomenon in most markets. Sure, Paris had its natural wine bars in the 1990s and there were a handful elsewhere, but Terroirs didn’t open in London until 2009 and it was a good few years after that before a critical mass of places were specialising in serving these wines. In those days there weren’t a vast number of vignerons to build your list around and their production was very limited, so the truth is most of their wine would be bought, sold and poured long in advance of the next vintage arriving.”

The jury was long out on whether wines with low or no sulphur have the capacity to age, and certainly many are produced to be drunk almost immediately after bottling. There is now a broader consensus that exceptionally well-made zero-sulphur wines can age beautifully, and many low-sulphur wines would have likely improved with further bottle-ageing, so it is welcome that restaurants, bars and shops now have larger stocks of old vintages, and that Londoners are able to consume them closer to their sweet spot.

For Alphandery, the growing appreciation of time among London’s natural-wine consumers has meant pushing for a wider appreciation of producers. As he tells me, “The traditional wines, made by winemakers who are masters of their craft, will always eventually appeal, as you start geeking out about wine more and more. I think good wine is good wine, as long as it’s made with indigenous yeast and manually harvested. Sulphur is a different story, and everybody has a different tolerance whether it is philosophical or just a matter of taste.”

Some sommeliers focusing on natural wine even welcome sulphur. As Hannah Gillies, sommelier at Michelin-starred KOL, tells me, “I’m never looking to find the exact sulphur amounts, I usually just trust that there’s not going to be a mind-boggling amount if I trust the producer. In fact, I’ll be happy to hear they’ve put some sulphur in the wine because quite frankly, it will mean it will have some kind of longevity, it will travel better, it will keep a little better.”

Just as the natural-wine scene has opened up in East London, the opening of KOL near Marble Arch posed a different challenge. Offering a Mexican menu with only native British ingredients, the vision was also to produce a wine list with an ecological focus. Yet, as Gillies tells me, “Where we are, it’s harder for us to get away with those funkier styles. West London has a more classic clientele – although there’s a good mix these days. Some people are accepting, but some still have that thing where they need to get their head around the menu first, and then they head to the tables and hear the word ‘biodynamic’ or ‘natural’ and run away. For the pairing, some wines may edge towards tasting natural, but without scaring people away.”

KOL has been championing the wines of Central and Eastern Europe, working closely with the importer Modal Wines who helped facilitate some house wines from the Slovakian producer Slobodne, but the broad consensus for the wine programme has been to gear towards clean, precisely made, natural wines, whilst producing a dynamic list with plentiful classics.

What’s clear is that the line between ‘natural wine’ and ‘conventional wine’ territory in London has never been blurrier, and less doctrinal lists are increasingly becoming the way to really promote artisanally-made, unique wines with a story of place. As Rodriguez puts it, “The issue is, when you try to pin down natural wine, there’s no definition we can all agree on, so restaurants having balanced wine lists is really a natural evolution.”